Life on the Mekong and Other Rivers

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Monday, August 11, 2008


So first a note about driving in Ukraine. I've spoken about the drivers in Kyiv, which are maddening because of the gridlock that they create. They are (and yes, I am generalizing, there certainly are sane, thoughtful drivers in Kyiv; they just seem to be staying home most of the time) in such a hurry to get where they are going that they end up slowing everyone down by blocking intersections, driving on sidewalks, and generally making me sad.

Driving on the highways is another story. Sure, the drivers are still in a hurry, but here they actually have the open road with which to sow their terror. A four lane highway, not so bad. There's always the slow lane. But who knew that 75 miles an hour was slow?

But in the 340 KM between Kyiv and Poltava, there are about 85 KM that are two lane. That is where the fun starts. Two or three times I had to slam on my brakes and drive onto the shoulder to avoid being hit by a car passing a truck coming the other way. They did do me the courtesy of flashing their lights at me to let me know that I had to move out of my own lane lest I have my second car accident in our short tenure here in Ukraine.

It was explained later to me that, although it is indeed a two-lane highway, there is generally enough space for 3 cars to pass at once, so the standard practice is just to flick your lights to let the oncoming car (in his or her own lane, no less) that you will be taking'center' lane of the two-lane highway. Lesson learned.

But while there is a cutthroat side to driving the Ukrainian highways, there is also comraderie. A kind of us against them...them being the police that seemed to be located about every 20 KM on the highway pulling the next driver over as fast as they can extract the 20 Hryvna 'fine on the spot' from the last one.

Now, I am immune from the shake down; my license plates tell me so. But I still stop when told to, if only to show my diplomatic card. It's hard not to be pulled over when the speed limit is 55 mph..unless it's not. It randomly becomes 45 mph, or even 30 mph, which really allows the police to strategically position themselves to get you speeding. Especially when everyone but the trucks goes well over 55 to begin with.

And here's where the comraderie comes in. Turns out that flashing your lights can mean two things.

First, the aforementioned 'I am driving in your lane in the wrong direction and I'm not going to stop'.

The better meaning, however, is 'careful, there is a police speed trap coming up'.

So as you are driving, a line of cars coming the other way, but...and this is key to understanding the subtle difference in, you know, their own lane, helpfully flash their lights to let you know to slow down.

I gamely played my part, receiving thankful waves from drivers I warned who, if they wanted to pass, I'm certain would run me out of my own lane without a second thought.

So you take the good with the bad.

A few hours on the road and I was in Poltava. But I didn't see the town itself. Instead, I headed straight out to the dacha where my co-worker, Slava, his wife Iulia and two of their friends, Vlad and Natasha, waited. Well, actually, Slava wasn't waiting for me since he met me on the highway to lead me there. Easier than giving directions, he said. After the drive, I agreed.

We were in a small collection of dachas right on the Vorskla river, which was made famous by Peter the Great way back when around the time of the Battle of Poltava...TAKE THAT SWEDEN!

So dachas. For those that don't know, dachas are where old men work their gardens in their underwear while their wives stand, arms akimbo, giving directions, and the grandkids run around. Other stuff goes on too, but that is the best part.

We were staying at the dacha of Slava's wife's parents' friends. It was small. One room really. With 5 of us, I felt it prudent to set up my tent in the yard. Plus, I've been known to snore, and didn't want to subject them to it.

Soon after arrival, the tent was up, Slava and I had beers in hand, and the fire was going to make shashlik and roasted peppers.
Slava is a master shashlikist, or whatever the noun for one who makes shashlik would be. He's even got a fancy grill for the job.

We took the feast down to the river and, well, feasted. Later, I introduced my Ukrainian hosts to s'mores. I don't think they will make it into the regular diet of Slava, but Iulia seemed to like them. We hung around the fire sharing beer and brandy (ed. note: yuck) while Iulia tried to stay warm.

The next morning, I woke early to find everything quiet, except the damn dog down the lane barking, which is why I woke up in the first place. I sat down to read a book when Slava and Iulia came walking down the road. Seems they'd been up even earlier, and had headed for a swim. Seeing that I was up, they deceided to turn around with me in tow for another swim. The Vorskla river is a narrow, slow-moving, but clean river that is kind of a magnet for weekend revelers from town.

But, first thing in the morning, it was all ours.

We went back, grabbed Vlad and Natasha and breakfast, which turned out to be quite a feast, and brought it back to the riverbank, where Slava surveyed his domain.


I headed out after breakfast to get back to Kyiv at a decent hour. Well, decent enough to meet up with some friends at a bar to watch the US play China in men's basketball.




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